Selling War

Photos by Ted Soqui

ON A RECENT SATURDAY, just a few days before President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union address, spoke of America’s imminent “liberation for Iraq,” two young men walked into an Army recruiting office located in a generic mini-mall, one block north of the University of Southern California campus. It was 9 o’clock in the morning, and the mall, at 32nd and Hoover, was nearly deserted. The neighboring offices, operated by the Air Force, Navy and Marines, were dark. But the Army command, run by Sergeant First Class Arturo Ramos-Martinez, was coming to life — slowly. The two men, dressed in loose pants, T-shirts and low-top b-ball shoes, had recently enlisted in the United States Army, and they were at the Hoover Street detail to participate in what the Army calls “Delay Entry Program & Maintenance.” Dan Maka, 21, had signed his contract to serve a six-year hitch, on January 1. His friend, Carlos Montiel, 20, had joined a month earlier, on December 3.

Maka and Montiel are two of the newest recruits in a year-round, nonstop ritual of inducting 196,000 young Americans into the All-Volunteer Force. They are future soldiers, ones who might get lucky and never see combat in Iraq, say, but then again, who just as easily might get dropped someday soon in Korea, Afghanistan, Indonesia or any other spot on the planet that comes within the cross hairs of the interventionist Bush Doctrine of global security.

Getting inspired, tired and
measured on the way to
ridding the world of evildoers

It costs the Department of Defense roughly $11,000 to lure in each recruit, a price tag that has doubled in the last decade, in part because 64 percent of young Americans say they definitely would not volunteer for military service under any conditions. And now with the White House openly itching for a war — and against a country it claims bristles with chemical and biological weapons — recruiters are working overtime to meet their quotas.

That Saturday morning, the atmosphere was relaxed and casual. The gathering was really just a warm-up, part of a weeding-out process that is a mixture of welcoming and mild discipline. Coffee, then push-ups, informal chitchat, then indoctrination. And so, Maka sat upon a desk, his large frame a portrait of inertia, while Montiel lounged in the chair at Maka’s desk, his arms in his lap, his legs stretched in front of him. Neither had shed his street look quite yet, Maka in somewhat baggy clothes, Montiel with a pierced tongue and a black shark’s tooth pinned into each of his earlobes.

When asked why they’d joined the Army, both answered readily: to become Apache-helicopter mechanics. The Army, Montiel explained, offers “experience, a résumé, and what better way than doing it here? We get an opportunity to do our careers, plus we are protecting our country.” Dan Maka added, “They like to hire people from the Army. It shows we have discipline and can do the things when they need to get done.”

The men were soon joined by Santos Sarmiento, 18, who’d recently graduated from Wilson High School, and was scheduled, following basic training, to become an infantryman. Alfredo Alatorre arrived next. An 18-year-old senior from Manual Arts High School, he will train to become a “tanker,” which, as the name implies, is someone who pilots an M1-A1 Abrams tank — machines of battlefield warfare that, as Alatorre points out, “have a lot more gadgets, and don’t have to stop to be shooting at targets.”

Within 10 minutes, the remainder of the 14 new enlistees trickled in, and after Sergeant Ramos gave them a heads-up on what to expect from this morning’s session, the troop ambled out and filed across the street toward a track on the USC campus. On the wide field, the penetrating sun made everything stand stock-still. It was one of those days that makes you want to bask and drift in motionlessness — hardly the right mood to concentrate the mind, or body, on modern warfare, so fundamentally disconnected from nature and human frailty. The young recruits, 10 men and four women, hardly noticed the effects of the pellucid light, although they weren’t fully absorbed by the Jack La Lanne exercise routine their insistent, if indulgent, drill sergeant was leading.


“Hip rotation,” Sergeant Alberto Gonzalez called out.

“Hip rotation,” the recruits softly replied, as they twisted languorously from side to side.

Throughout the stretching routine, a few of those who could sounded off, in rhythm with the exercise, “one, two, three, four . . . eight, nine, one-zero” — ten — after which the sergeant said, “Relax.” The crew managed a halfhearted “Never” in response. While not exactly enthusiastic — and clearly out of shape — the bunch were willing. They didn’t have much élan, or esprit de corps, but they weren’t ready to quit, either.

Tired, hot and thirsty after a half-mile run, the group made their way back to Sergeant Ramos’ office, and if they were worried that looming boot camp would make this workout seem like a breeze, they weren’t letting on. If they were trying to connect this genteel rehearsal to the hard and ugly face of war, they weren’t saying so out loud. If they were feeling revved up and gung-ho, and ready, as President Bush has declared, “to rid the world of evildoers,” they were too winded to show it.

The various high-sounding rationales for war with Iraq that dominate media coverage are hardly the focus among this group of teens and kids in their earliest 20s. Alfredo Alatorre, the Manual Arts senior, thinks about his enlistment this way: “I’m going both ways. I help my country and I get my career.” Alatorre wasn’t originally convinced by the Army recruiter who came to his campus. “The recruiter came to my class, and I wasn’t interested. He called me on the phone and asked what I wanted to do.” Alatorre told the recruiter he hoped to attend UCLA and study paleontology. “He asked me, ‘How are you going to pay for this?’ My mom’s a housewife. My parents didn’t have that kind of money. I am going to be the first high school graduate in my family. That got me thinking. All I had to do was conquer the [Army entrance] test.

“Tanks caught my attention, from war games and war movies — the power they are throwing . . . If I could drive a tank, that would be, like, whoa!”

What about Mogadishu, the Army’s disastrous assault against Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid? “You saw Blackhawk Down. Doesn’t war frighten you?” I ask.

“It does. But if it’s a threat, like right now, it’s got to be taken care of. And life is scary. My mom came running away from that in Guatemala,” he continues. “War. She tells me stories of when she was a kid. It was nasty. I’m going into the Army to protect her from what she ran away from.”

Alatorre pauses, and thinks for a moment. He grew up at 41st and Vermont, where life can be scary. He is searching for the words that best express the hopes he has invested in the Army. “In those Army ads, when they go home with their uniforms on, it’s really cool. He’s going home. He’s not going in jail, or dead. That’s really cool.”

Later, Veronica Jimenez, a teenager who emigrated from Ecuador just two years ago, echoes his idealism. “In those ads, it feels great when they are saying, ‘I’m Sergeant Jimenez, and I’m the Army.’”

Those ads for America’s military are the products of recruitment budgets — among the four service branches — that exceeded $270 million last year. The current volunteer Army was an outgrowth of Richard M. Nixon’s shrewd political insight that ending the Vietnam-era draft would undermine opposition to an unpopular war. His maneuver created a military that was, essentially, an enormous job market, but with the added hindrance of having to sell itself to its potential employees — mostly teens who are unlikely to have a strongly developed sense of the nobility of national service.

“In the 1970s, when we went to an all-volunteer military, it caused a lot of problems,” says Alan Whitley, the creative director of the Marines’ advertising account at J. Walter Thompson. “After Vietnam, the military left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. The branches became independent marketing organizations.” That is what they have remained, to this day.

how does the military, especially on the eve of war, sell a four- or five- or six-year stint to kids like Veronica Jimenez and Alberto Alatorre? How does Whitley, whose “job it is to put 40,000 recruits into boot camp” for the Marines, make his pitch? First, he says, each branch uses a “different . . . appeal. The old commercials, ‘Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines,’ were ineffective. The Air Force became high-tech. Navy, adventure. Army had the biggest mission of all, they had to get a lot of guys. Marines, hell-bent for leather. If you want a career, go to Army. If you want adrenaline, go into the Navy. If you want to learn to fly planes, go into the Air Force. If you want to be a warrior, join the Marines.”


Playing in local theaters this winter season, and on televisions nationwide, for instance, is “The Climb,” part of the Marine Corps’ most successful recruiting campaign ever, according to JWT’s executive creative director, Michael Lollis. “‘The Climb,’” Lollis says, “uses symbols and metaphors” to get its message across. The spot, filmed in Monument Valley, Utah, begins as billowy white clouds speed across the blue heavens and a young man in a tank-top T-shirt peers up at a 600-foot vertical cliff. What we see — and he sees too — is the image of a full-dress Marine emanating from the rock. As he begins his free-hand ascent (an impossibility that the producers acknowledge was meticulously staged employing the safety precautions of a firemen’s rescue squad), the shadows of Marine infantry shimmer against the rocks. At each new level of his climb, another image is superimposed. Footage of helicopter gunships and Marines charging through a field whisk across the rock face. The face of a lone Marine in green fatigues and carrying a rifle flashes across the screen and then appears like a giant mural on the stony precipice.

The climber stares into the Marine’s eyes, which stare back. Inspired, he finds his next toe- and handhold, and shimmies between two towers of rock. The image of a black Marine spoon-feeding a pale Asian girl arises. He climbs higher, and as he sashays from ledge to ledge, the image of a training officer, firm-jawed, erect, hands on his hips, barking orders, exhorts the climber on. And then . . . the music stops! The climber loses his grip and dangles by one arm from a sharp overhang. He faces death. He reaches out, finds a firm grip and surmounts the lip. A momentary jump cut interposes the famous photo of Marines about to plant the flag at Iwo Jima, in World War II. As the flag is planted, the climber re-appears, the flag sweeps across the face he is climbing, and the men of Iwo Jima merge with the rock to become its surface. A ä voice announces: “The passage is intense. But if you complete the journey, you will find your destiny among the world’s greatest warriors.” At this moment, a ghostly hand reaches for his as he peers over the summit. A WWII Marine helps him up. The ghost stands at attention, salutes. The rock climber, in awe, snaps to attention and is transformed into a modern-day Marine. The whole teton becomes a unit of Marines, ramrod-stiff.

What is happening here? Whitley says, “It’s about inner strength, which you have to tap, and once you have tapped that, it’s like an awakening. ‘I once was blind, and now I see.’ Transform your skinny, 100-pound self, and come out as yourself. This plays especially well to the millennial generation, kids born after 1982. It reflects a generational difference: X-ers grew up selfish — all about what’s in it for us. Millennials are a backlash against that. X hated the institutions America built up, and wanted to tear them down: Kurt Cobain, pessimistic, dark. Millennials are very up about the country, and they want to surf. When you offer millennials a chance to be something bigger than themselves and a chance for service, it adds up for them. They understand discipline and self-discipline, and they read into that the chance to get a lot out of their lives.” Climbing the mountain and becoming a Marine is the metaphor for conquering yourself and becoming who you truly are.

And so it goes, with minor changes of emphasis from branch to branch. War, the ultimate form of violence, which our nation is about to inflict on Iraqis, isn’t in the picture.

The Air Force has “We’ve Been Waiting for You,” a national TV campaign that is also running on 3,500 movie screens across the country. The series includes “Waterfall,” “Speed,” “Bronx” and “Glider.” In each of the spots, a youngster exhibits a unique quality — the daredevil dives into a rapids, the speed addict pushes a street luge to the limit, the high-tech tinkerer fixes her parents’ satellite dish, the dreamer guides radio-control planes — only to emerge, after the “Cross Into the Blue,” in the perfect Air Force job, as a para-rescue jumper, an F/A-22 Raptor pilot, a space-systems operator, an unmanned-Predator operator.

“Whatever your interest, we have an interesting career opportunity you can make the most of,” says Lee Pilz of GSD&M in Austin, Texas. “In testing, kids recognized that, and they felt that it was a special invitation to them: ‘We’ve Been Waiting for You.’ It’s a personal invitation. It’s subtle. A lot of military advertising says, ‘We’ll transform you, the slacker, into a trained person. We recognize what is special about you. We value it.’”


“We’re not in war situations with our advertising,” says Brian Born, the creative director on the Air Force account. “The Air Force is more about the teamwork, and more about the job, and less about the wars. We want people to know they actually can do better in AF. You get out of school, and you are working up the corporate ladder, but in the Air Force you don’t have to wait years to get into the position you want to be in. You’re in there in maybe four months. What was up with ‘Cross Into the Blue’? Why is the Air Force so special? We realized that this is the place where you can still be yourself, it feels like your job, it still feels like you, and you do what you want to do, and you’re gettin’ paid for it.”

The Navy’s tweaking of this theme is “Accelerate Your Life,” which promises “adventure, travel, career, patriotism, technology, education, honor.” Set to music from the band Godsmack, a voice-over intones, “If someone wrote a book about your life, would anyone want to read it?” The Army’s is less oblique. Its commercial flashes snapshots of “real” army personnel at “work.” Airborne Trainee, Apache Pilot, Ranger, Intel Analyst, Aviation Mechanic, Air Defender, Land Warrior, Medic. And then the pitch is made: “Most Job Training Teaches You How To Make Something. Ours Teaches You What You’re Made Of.” The announcer explains, “There are over 200 ways to become an Army of One.”

Back on the outskirts of USC, Army Sergeant Ramos’ Delay Entry Program & Maintenance recruits have returned to the office for a brief lecture, to be followed by a physical examination of sorts, basically a boxer’s weigh-in. Ramos asks, “What is leadership?” Rodolfo Valenzuela answers, as if he’d been memorizing the correct reply, “More responsibility. Learn how to lead. Have self-confidence. Learn right from wrong. Learn to make decisions.” Others add, “Take charge.” “Take control.”

“Can you be a leader and a follower all at once? Is that a trick question?”

Ramos answers his own question. “When you go to basic, that is the initiation to leadership development. Did you know that the Army is going to send you to leadership schools? You will develop as a person, as a leader. When you want to be a good leader, you gotta know your job. But you have to strive to become proficient, you have to know everything about that job. You want to be number one. You’ve got the experience to manage people. Let’s say you do your five years in the Army, and you are going into a job. The Army has been good for you, but you are through. You do your four years, you get your B.A. Next thing you know, you are a role model in your community.”

“So, what kind of experience do you get in the Army?” Ramos asks as he winds up his talk.

Alfredo Alatorre, who has been listening closely, swoops in. “Doing what’s right,” he says firmly.

Ramos nods in agreement. Nobody has mentioned killing, or being killed. Iraq remains a far-off land. Another perfect recruitment day.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >